Craig Fowler answers the question of whether Celtic’s defensive frailties on the continent will ultimately have an impact on Brendan Rodgers’ legacy with the club
There has been progression. Some have claimed otherwise, which in the wake of Thursday night’s game is completely understandable. Emotions are running high, fans have just watched their team swatted aside by a club barely anyone outside of Russia had heard of before the mid-noughties. It’s only natural for football fans to jump to extreme reactions. When things have died down, they should see that things aren’t quite that bad.
Before Rodgers arrived, Celtic couldn’t make the Champions League, now they’ve done so two years on the trot. Also, last season they finished fourth in the Champions League group, this season they finished third and qualified for the Europa League, where they defeated a much richer club in one of the two legs. See? Progress.
Those using their anger to lash out should eventually come round to this idea. However, that doesn’t mean they should hail the whole thing as a giant step forward, because it’s not.
There still exists the same problem from the first European campaign. There has been an improvement in results, arguably, but performances have stayed their usual inconsistent self. Celtic either play well and get a result - or in the case of the Bayern Munich and Barcelona home matches, come close to one - or they get scudded.
There doesn’t seem to be any learning when it comes to the latter. Celtic will never have the resources to compete with the elite clubs of Europe, or even the second tier. But in order to readdress the balance they must be organised, tough defensively and a nightmare for the opposition to break down. The Zenit loss showed there’s been no progress whatsoever made on that front. They’re still a soft touch in these matches.
They need to be more like the Lennon era, even if the former manager’s teams were hardly a paradigm of defensive solidity themselves on the continent. They conceded 28 goals in 14 matches across the two Champions League campaigns, but that’s still significantly better than the 37 Rodgers team have given up in the same number of games (if we include the Zenit double-header). Yes, there has been a further widening of the financial gap since then, but look back at some of those Celtic sides. Efe Ambrose, Adam Matthews and Charlie Mulgrew will hardly go down as club legends. Even the Gordon Strachan teams of the mid-noughties relied on the likes of Stephen McManus and Gary Caldwell at the back. It’s a myth - ironically perpetrated by the former Celtic Park boss during his time in charge of Scotland - that you need great defenders to be a strong defensive side. It helps, obviously, but a well-drilled, disciplined unit can make a collective greater than the sum of its parts.
That may ultimately be the give and take when it comes to Rodgers and his time at Celtic. His philosophy is built around passing football and making the players at his disposal technically better. If you’re spending extra time on the training ground working on attacking shape then you’ll have less time to construct a well-oiled defensive machine.
Individual performance have not helped matters either. Jozo Simunovic looked like a £10million defender in the making, Dedryck Boyata had improved tenfold and Mikael Lustig was a reliable performer at the highest level on the right of the defence. That was at the beginning of the campaign. Now? Simunovic has been wildly inconsistent, mistakes have crept back into Boyata’s game, and Lustig’s previous injury problems seem to be catching up with his ageing legs.
Shopping in the transfer market is a complicated process for the Parkhead side. It’s certainly not as easy as the pundits like to make out. “Celtic *should* have signed a higher calibre of centre-back” they exclaim. Considering Simunovic cost a few million, and is probably worth around £6million on the current market, unless they are getting a sure thing on a surprisingly cheap deal, or consistently breaking the bank to improve the squad, then it’s hard to replace those currently in the squad with definite improvements.
Having said that, they could have done more this campaign, at least tried to gamble a bit more with regards to recruitment. Bring in a new right-back to compete with the veteran, sign a centre-back who’ll maybe be an improvement on what’s there (and can play in Europe) and get a capable goalkeeper to keep Craig Gordon on his toes. They didn’t do any of that. There seems a little too much trust placed in those already there. Rodgers wants to develop players, but look at the likes of Boyata and Stuart Armstrong. Yes they got a lot better, but the peak already seems to have been hit.
The European frustration was a lot easier to take for the support last season when Celtic were playing with real verve and panache on the domestic scene, yet they’ve been oddly lacklustre on a number of occasions this campaign. It speaks to the strength of the squad that they’ll still win the league by a canter.
In the end, that’s how Rodgers’ legacy will be judged. They’ve have a few shaky moments and get excessive criticism in the Scottish football fishbowl, but ultimately Celtic’s defenders won’t be troubled enough for them to become much of a problem domestically. The worst they can do is throw away a Scottish Cup win, and even that doesn’t look likely. In years time when Rodgers’ Celtic career is assessed in hindsight, nobody will lament European results in the same manner they’ll revere back-to-back trebles. Even five trophies in two years is a superb return.
What the defensive struggles in Europe may tarnish, however, is Rodgers reputation outside of Scotland, where there’s little regard for our national league. The supporters couldn’t give two monkeys about what the English media think. Whether Rodgers does or not, only he’ll truly know.
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